Originally published in AJS Review, 20:1 (1995), pp. 186-8.
Louis Jacobs. Structure and Form in the Babylonian Talmud. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. xii, 138 pp.
This book presents the basic claim that the Babylonian Talmud as a whole is a work of literature, not a historical record. Its editors attributed words to individuals they knew had not spoken them, they described events they knew had not occurred, they constructed dialogues out of statements they knew were originally unrelated. Louis Jacobs amasses convincing evidence that such things happened, and leaves little doubt that they happened in the full knowledge of those who produced the talmudic text.
From this initial finding emerge important conclusions. First, and most directly, there is little point in trying to determine the historical events that (may) underlie various talmudic narratives. These stories in their present form were developed by people who were not even trying to record events as they really happened, nor we can tell anymore whether earlier versions of the stories aimed at historical veracity of this kind. Once we know that the Babylonian Talmud was produced by authors who were not afraid to generate fiction, all talk of “historical kernels” to such tales must stop, and comparative study of different versions of such narratives must no longer be expected to clarify which is closer to an “original event.” There may well have been such kernels and such events, but we can no longer presume their existence or count on finding them where they do not exist.
Secondly, the Babylonian Talmud as a whole must be seen as an “academic” book, more interested in the ebb and flow of debate and analysis than in the simple articulation of positive law. When one adopts this point of view, it becomes easier to imagine that the fictitious incidents, etc., found in the Talmud are meant as hypothetical reconstructions, based on the presumed opinions of various teachers, of those teachers’ reactions to newly arisen questions and newly presented arguments, rather than as flagrant deceptions meant dishonestly to influence decisions regarding the actual law.
Third, and here the author’s presentation is less satisfying, the process of literary production implied in this view is far easier to conceive when one pictures the editors as working with written materials. The Babylonian Talmud may have been compiled out of materials that circulated previously (in part) as memorized, oral lore, but the final text itself must have existed in writing from the moment of its appearance; probably much of the material comprising that text was in writing at previous stages as well. The problem here is in the way this idea is presented. In the last, all-too-brief paragraph of the book, Jacobs attributes a similar view to “Maimonides in the Middle Ages and . . . the majority of modern scholars,” and so it may be, but the issue is very complex and there is counter-evidence that receives no attention here at all. The point was hardly worth raising if no more was to be said about it than this.
The argument of the book just summarized is highly plausible but suffers from two basic flaws in its presentation. For one thing, the discussion proceeds with surprisingly little attention to recent scholarly examination of similar questions. Chapter 2, which depicts the Babylonian Talmud as “an academic work,” virtually repeats in large measure the findings of David Kraemer’s recent The Mind of the Talmud, but reference to that book appears nowhere in this one, not even with an “appeared too late for inclusion” notice attached to the bibliography. Similarly, the voluminous studies of closely related topics produced over the last many years by Jacob Neusner and his students (including the present reviewer) go almost entirely unrecognized. This absence is made all the more regrettable by the author’s very deep familiarity with analyses produced throughout recent generations by writers in the yeshiva world, a world with which contemporary academic Judaic scholarship comes into far too little contact.
Secondly, at certain key moments the author is too willing to substitute impressions for analysis. Two very brief chapters consist of consecutive translations of the two version of certain talmudic aggadot followed only by the assertion that comparison will show the Babylonian version to be more “dramatic” (pp. 86, 90). Another chapter, working in the same fashion, claims to provide “particularly convincing evidence of how the material [in the Babylonian Talmud] . . . has been structured by the editors so as to provide a strong element of dramatic effect” (p. 95). One more or less knows in all these cases what the author means, but rigorous argument requires something more than is provided; it demands articulated criteria of the “dramatic,” detailed analysis of the relevant evidence, explicit statement of the implications of the finding. In chapter after chapter of the present book all of these were lacking, when scholarly armor of this kind would have strengthened an argument that is fundamentally sound and deserving of attention.
In conclusion, however, while one may wish that the views of the Babylonian Talmud presented here had been offered in a more powerful manner, one must also be grateful to Jacobs for shedding useful light on important questions, and for moving the discussion forward in the direction it must go.
State University of New York at Stony Brook
Stony Brook, N.Y.